Live Review: Fort Frances at Radio Radio, Indianapolis
Chicago trio Fort Frances visited Indianapolis on Saturday night for a celebratory set on the heels of the release of their excellent, new Harbour EP, freshly out on Tuesday. New to the band, I’d been truly delighted to have both the five-song collection and their 2011 debut, The Atlas, burning up my stereo all week long. However, I was even more elated to discover the trio’s harmony-driven indie folk sound given a positively visceral blast of rock-and-roll, power-trio adrenaline in a live setting.
Fort Frances, consisting of David McMillin (vocals, guitar, keys), Jeff Piper (bass, keys, vocals) and Aaron Kiser (drums, vocals), inhabit a stage with a no-frills, comfortable ease and give off an endearment that amplifies the sincerity pressed into their songs. Unknowingly expecting somewhat more of a straight singer-songwriter outfit rounded out by instrumental support, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to discover how tight and propulsive Fort Frances’ sound translated in concert. Kiser, confident and beaming behind the kit, Piper, focused and measured on bass, and McMillin, front and center and wielding a forceful guitar and sharply honed vocals, triangulate their positions and play off one another with intimate precision and combustible energy. They are a power trio with the musicianship and smarts to give studio gems an electric backbone in a small, packed club on a Saturday night. For the most of the night, Fort Frances struck me as being kindred spirits in the vein of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Big Star as much as they are earnest, elegant folk songwriters on record.
That’s certainly not to say the self-assured restraint and nuanced purity of Fort Frances’ quieter tunes on Harbour and The Atlas didn’t benefit from the present vitality the trio brought to the stage. Songs like the melancholic “Hard Earned Heart” and the heartbreaking “Please Don’t Wait Up” brim with urgency on the strength of the band’s personal investment in the material, and they benefit from the confidence of incorporating fresh set-ups to the performance without falling into gimmickry. It’s no big secret to say Fort Frances’ strongest asset in the studio and on the stage is the trio’s organic camaraderie and how they fashion that close-knit relationship into tremendous harmonies that give the songs richer purpose that lesser groups would kill for. Whether rocking out to the point of glorious catharsis to round out songs in blistering power trio form (“Truths I Used to Know,” “Losing You”), gathering around a single mic to harmonize free of guise, triple the punch of the soaring refrains of wistful gems (“Ghosts of California,” “City by the Sea”), or incite an all-out sing-along revival (“I Had Love”), the depth of the bond between McMillin, Piper and Kiser incites an earned concord with fans that can’t be overstated.
The Fort Frances personalities that ring true on Harbour and The Atlas become even more appealing in person. Fort Frances have garnered acclaim from an abundance of critics, as well as having earned the adoration of Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz (who, along with Ryan’s Smashing Life, tapped the band for the prominent Outlaw Roadshow SXSW Showcase) and a passionate fanbase thanks to nonstop touring in support of The Atlas, but they play each set with an authenticity and presence that makes even a nondescript, Saturday night stop in Indy seem like the most important show of their career. Such authenticity and drive explains the willingness to harmonize around a single microphone or to “try something new” with Kiser and Piper drumming in unison shoulder-to-shoulder with McMillin while he sang “The Trouble.”
After being consumed in wholly fulfilling listening experiences with Harbour and The Atlas all week long, Fort Frances quickly became a band I have a fondness for that I envision myself enjoying for a distant future. However, witnessing the passion, enthusiasm and humility the trio brought to their Radio Radio show, I have no qualms saying Fort Frances truly are one of my new, favorite bands. The band has Indianapolis roots (McMillin was a class of ’06 grad of local DePauw University), which may go a long way in explaining the significance brought to the set, but I have zero doubt they infuse comparable energy in every performance in every town that they roll into. That’s the kind of personality I root for in favorite bands, and, judging by the way Fort Frances (Kiser in particular) clapped, hooted and hollered admiration from the front of the crowd for openers Cavalier (the only date the two bands are teaming up on the Fort Frances tour) while the majority of the crowd kept a distance and loudly chatted away, it’s not a stretch to say such is the winning personality the guys in Fort Frances exemplify in every circumstance.
Listening to their songs and seeing them play live, you really can’t help but root for Fort Frances becoming one of the biggest bands in the land. Their magnetism and passion for what they do warrant that much, but the damn-fine, harmony-driven glory of their tunes should make that end a done deal.
Fort Frances’ Harbour is out now (released April 23) courtesy of Roadblock Records.
*This post first appeared on Division St. Harmony on April 28, 2013.
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee. .
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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